History of the Panama Canal

Interested in one of the most important trade routes in human history? Read on for key points and interesting facts on the Panama Canal.

History of the Panama Canal

The Panama Canal is often considered one of the most important and impressive engineering projects in human history (Marine Insight). With nearly 14,000 ships passing through it each year and its strategic location that cuts the journey down by around 22 days, this artificial canal is fascinating.

This article covers a brief history of the Panama Canal along with some of the most important facts that explain the truly intriguing nature of this passage which represents the beginning of America’s dominance as a world power.

What is the Panama Canal?

The Panama Canal is a man-made waterway stretching 51 miles through Panama. It connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans whilst dividing the North and South American continents. Needless to say, the Panama Canal has been integral in the development of global transportation and trade since its creation.

Who built the Panama Canal?

As one may imagine, carving out a canal large enough to fit trade vessels up to 106 feet wide through it is no easy task. In fact, it took many hundreds of years, and several changes of hands to make the idea a reality.

It all began in the European colonial era. Though the final result of the Panama Canal was indeed an American feat, it was the French who truly began the work. Mr Ferdinand de Lesseps took the first steps towards digging the canal in 1881. De Lesseps was a French diplomat and engineer who saw the potential fortune that the crossing would bring if it were actualized.

So, the French took the first stab at designing and orchestrating the project. However, they significantly underestimated the costs and difficulties of carving such a vast canal out of the land. De Lesseps and his French crew abandoned the project partway in when costs became too burdensome, and thousands of workers fell ill with various tropical diseases. This is when the Americans became extremely interested in the project.

However, even before the French began operations, it was a Roman Emperor and King of Spain called Charles V who, in 1534, thought of the idea of building a conduit across the Isthmus of Panama. Needless to say, the Panama Canal has a rich history and was nothing more than an idea for hundreds of years.

Bringing the Canal to life

Americans took over the Canal’s construction after much negotiation with the Panamanian people and the independence of Panama itself. The success of the American project is often attributed to two factors.

1) The design reconfiguration which involved converting the French plan (sea-level waters) to a lock-controlled system allowed for a more realistic and effective build of the canal.

2) Disease control was integral to the second operation. Better healthcare and medical advances allowed for the control of diseases such as yellow fever and malaria (primarily spread by mosquitos) which had killed so much of the French workforce.

These elements in combination with a determined and robust crew allowed for the success and resultingly, the grand opening of the Panama Canal on the 15th of August, 1914.

Why was the Panama Canal Built?

The Panama Canal was built as a strategic conduit for ships to pass through to avoid the long and tiring journey from the Pacific to the Atlantic Ocean. As this section of South America is narrow land-wise, explorers surveyed several routes through it for the purposes of trade. The second option was to carve the canal through Nicaragua however, for various reasons, the route through Panama was deemed more viable.

Saving nearly 22 days of travel, the route allows for faster international trade as well as cheaper trade considering the fuel and labor costs saved by cutting down the journey so significantly.

The Canal’s inception brought world trade into a new era. By 1939, over 7,000 ships were passing through its waters annually indicating the significant demand for marine trade being met by way of the Panama Canal.

How much did it cost to build the Panama Canal?

The losses incurred by the French after their first attempt at the canal were great; roughly 234.8 million USD was spent when the project was abandoned about two-fifths of the way through it.

In total, between the years 1904 and 1913, an estimated 375 million USD was spent constructing the canal. Additionally, around 56,000 people worked on the canal, and approximately, 5,600 died throughout the process.

What types of ships pass through the Panama Canal?

The Panama Canal has something called the “Panamax” which is the latest maximum size that a ship may be to pass through the canal.

The new “Panamax” or 2016 maximum size limit for the canal is 1,200 feet in length and 190 feet in height with a 168-foot beam. This ship’s maximum tonnage is 120,000 DWT. In other words, some extremely large ships with significant cargo can pass through the Panama Canal however, it will cost a small fortune to do so.

How much does it cost to cross the Panama Canal?

Because of the many benefits of taking the Panama Canal, it costs the shipping companies a fair price. This price is determined by the size of the ship. The size is measured using the length overall metric of LOA. For instance, a ship with an LOA between 125 and 200 feet will cost approximately $2,500 to take through the canal.

Ships between 200 and 300 feet in LOA cost roughly $5,000 and those over 300 feet in LOA will be charged over $10,000 per passage.

However, these costs are approximate as other features of the ship are taken into account. For instance, a cruise ship that is a heavy emitter as well as deep and tall will cost more than its lightweight counterpart.

Further, as climate change and the resulting droughts ravage the nation, the canal’s costs are changing with added fees popping up each year.

Can sailboats pass through the Panama Canal?

Yes, sailboats can indeed pass through the Panama Canal. Many sailors call this voyage one of the most rewarding a sailor can undertake and it is, therefore, highly regarded amongst the sailing community. However, the voyage can be costly and at times, stressful.

The most common route through the canal for sailboats is along the center-chamber lockage. It requires that two to three boats raft up to sail through it. If you are considering sailing through the Panama Canal, be sure to do your research and prepare for the journey of a lifetime!

And remember that the canal is considered highly favorable to the long and often dangerous alternative routes.

The Panama Canal today

This canal’s incredible history has led to its dominance in marine trade globally today.

The Panama Canal Authority, a government-owned entity, currently manages and operates the canal. The US transferred control to Panama in 1999 after a period of high tension regarding control of the Canal Zone. In 1966, night lighting was installed along the canal to allow for passage by night. This was largely due to the fact that demand for passage was so great that ships were lining up at each end of the canal.

As Asian economies have developed exponentially in recent decades, the demand for the canal has increased even more. 3% of global maritime trade passes through the Panama Canal rendering it vital to the health of economies worldwide. Thus, in 2007, around 2.25 billion USD was dedicated to expanding the canal’s carrying capacity resulting in the new “Panamax” which was completed in 2016.

As demand for crossing is predicted to increase even more in the coming years, this number will likely grow as will expansions and maintenance of the canal’s infrastructure.

Interesting facts about the history of the Panama Canal

  • The idea for the canal can be traced back to the 16th century
  • The canal was nearly built in Nicaragua rather than Panama
  • It takes roughly 24 hours for ships to travel from one end of the Panama Canal to the other
  • Nearly 40 ships pass through the Canal every day – that is approximately 14,000 ships per year
  • The locks can accommodate ships up to 1,201 feet long
  • The first vessel to cross the Panama Canal was the SS Ancon
  • It saves 22 days to cross the Panama Canal rather than take the long way
  • Richard Haliburton swam the Panama Canal in 1928
  • There are 12 locks along the Panama Canal to regulate the water levels and passage through by ships
  • The most recent expansion of the Panama Canal cost roughly 5.25 billion USD and took nearly 10 years

In Conclusion

Now that you are an expert on the intricacies of the history of the Panama Canal, you may be inclined to pass through it. Remember, this canal was no simple task. The canal took millions of dollars and thousands of lives to build.

As such, the Panama Canal is often regarded as the turning point after which the United States emerged as one of the great world powers because of its dominance in marine trade.